Who Would You Want To Be?

Wolfie the Bunny coverIf you haven’t read Wolfie the Bunny, you’re in for a treat. It’s a bright yellow picture book about a family of rabbits that takes in a baby wolf they find in a basket on their front porch. The parents are immediately infatuated with baby Wolfie; the daughter, Dot, is much more suspicious. It’s a sweet book that includes, among other things, repeated threats of homicide.

It’s one of my favorite books to read aloud to a group. Older kids love it as much as younger ones. There’s humor, action, and a bold illustration style that plays well to a room.

And when the projector won’t start and you need to stall, it’s a tremendously fun book with which to ask a group of second graders: Which character would you want to be?

It’s always an interesting question to consider, in books for both kids and adults, because it can be a tricky one. Do you decide based on the character’s history? Their skills and interests? The people they surround themselves with? The place they live? And what about disqualifying factors? Maybe you really love a character and they’re good at something you’ve always wanted to try, but you can’t stomach the way they treat someone else. Or you share a character’s passion for music and get very excited about the way she talks about it, but you have to balance that with the fact that she spends much of the novel in the hospital, and you’re deathly afraid of needles. It’s a strange thing to think about, borrowing an entire existence in one go.

So I asked these kids about Wolfie the Bunny. The conversation went like this.

CAP: Which character would you want to be? Go ahead, shout it out. (They did. Some of them yelled “Wolfie!” and some of them yelled “Dot!”) Okay, show of hands, who would want to be Dot?

(All of the girls raised their hands.)

CAP: And who would want to be Wolfie?

(All of the boys raised their hands. I wasn’t totally surprised, but I was a little disappointed, so I nodded like that answered the question and switched topics entirely.)

CAP: Okay, shout it out, who do you think is the bravest character in the book?

KIDS (gleefully): Dot!!

CAP: What makes her brave?

(They raised their hands and gave me a bunch of really good answers here—she stood up to a bear even though he could eat her, she told her parents what she thought even though they didn’t agree, etc.)

CAP: Okay, wait, I’ve forgotten, who did you say you wanted to be? Shout it out.

And here this hilarious thing happened, where all of the girls—and some of the boys—shouted “Dot!” with great enthusiasm, and several of the boys shouted “Wolfie!” with equal enthusiasm, and about a dozen of the remaining boys sat there with their mouths half-open, unable to decide. You could watch the gears turning behind their eyes. Some of them mumbled “Wolfie” a beat behind everyone else, and some of them said “Dot,” and some of them didn’t say anything at all.

I asked a different question, and we moved right along, and eventually the projector was fixed and the presentation went on as scheduled.

Who would you want to be? It’s a game, an idle one with no winners or losers. Try these lives on for size and see if one of them fits. No winners and no losers, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find yourself unexpectedly discomfited when the person whose life intrigues you most doesn’t look, talk, think, or act like you. You like people across a range of genders and they only like girls, and you have to wrap your head around how that matters to you. They have all of the skills you covet, but they also have a terrible singing voice, and singing is the primary thing in your life after food and water. They have blond hair and you like your brown hair; is that a sticking point for you? Do you find yourself trying to squish and twist the text to accommodate the parts of yourself you can’t give up, or are you willing to stretch yourself instead?

Plenty of people have already talked about how good it is for us to get outside of ourselves like that sometimes, and how important it is to tell a broad swath of stories because of that. We repeat aphorisms on the subject from Atticus Finch, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” is my favorite examination of the subject; she’s compassionate and needle-sharp at once.

What’s interesting to me about the who-would-you-want-to-be game that’s a little different from the diversity, inclusivity, etc. discussion is the limited circumstances the game places in front of you. Who would you want to be in this story? You can be a sweet wolf or a brave bunny (or, I guess, a homicidal bear), but in Wolfie the Bunny you can’t decide to be a sweet bunny or a brave wolf, because we don’t meet anyone like that on the page. Sure, Dot has her moments of empathy, and Wolfie has his moments of determination, and we can go searching those out. We hope that characters show nuance even in picture books. Still, no matter how nuanced, each character is given a specific set of circumstances and actions, and nothing else; and we have to decide exactly how far we can see ourselves going along with them.

In a limited field of options, we may sometimes get lucky and find our dream selves exactly center on the page, but much more often, what we’re going to have to decide is, which of these lives fits well enough?

That question demands not only empathy but an active choice to reconcile ourselves to imperfection. Our answer requires us to ask, will I stand by this character’s decisions even if I don’t agree with them all the time? Even if I don’t love them, even if they’re someone I wouldn’t get along with in real life? Even if I wouldn’t really want to be this person if I could help it? In this specific context, we ask ourselves, can I understand them, and perhaps admire them, enough?

You’re a boy, and you identify with Wolfie in that regard; and you want to be brave, so you identify with Dot. Now choose between the two. It’s artificial. It’s mind-bending. It’s often uncomfortable. And then you reach the end of the book, and you’re back in your very own skin, in your very own life, and the choices in front of you still aren’t perfect. They never are. We tell our kids that you can grow up to be whatever you want to be with hard work, talent, determination, pick your poison, but we can recognize in our own lives that that’s simply not true. I will never have the lungs to run a marathon no matter how hard I train; I am not wired to teach in a public school classroom; I will never work in Mission Control on a NASA mission to the moon because we don’t do that these days, and so I made different choices in high school and then in college, and now I’m here instead of somewhere else. I’m as happy as anyone can be right now and wouldn’t trade my life for all the moon landings in the solar system, though that, too, is partly a matter of chance, and anything can change.

The choices in front of us aren’t perfect, and they’re limited in scope no matter who you are; but that’s neither a good nor a bad thing. It just is. (The fact that some people face more limits than others because of the way society is structured is, as always, a point worth taking note of, and it can absolutely be a bad thing.) Our lives are messier and more complicated than any book we’ll ever read—Wolfie the Bunny or War and Peace—and stories are both how we make sense of the chaos and how we practice the decisions we may need to make.

Who would you be in this story? It’s a game.

It doesn’t mean anything unless you want it to.

How To Judge a Book By Its Cover, Part 1

This will be a two-parter, because there’s a lot to talk about.

One of the best parts of spring at the bookstore is the arrival of a whole crop of new books. (This happens in summer, fall, and winter, too, but hey, it’s not summer/fall/winter right now.) We order titles from publishers a couple of months in advance, and then they arrive in staggered shipments over the course of the season, showing up a couple of times a week in various boxes that have to be unpacked and inventoried. Putting books into our inventory system isn’t the best part of my day, but unpacking boxes can be like Christmas every week when you’ve got a lot of new titles to get excited about. Picture books! Cool history! The Hate U Give! Paperback copies of a book that’s been out in hardcover forever!

With kids’ books I’m frequently there when my boss orders them, so most things aren’t a complete surprise, but there’s still a big difference between seeing a tiny, much-compressed photo of the cover on a computer screen and getting to hold the book in your hand. Picture books are especially potent. When Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise came out, my boss laughed so hard that everything in the children’s department came to a screeching halt while she read it aloud to all of us. We sold three on the spot.

Which brings me to today’s point: cover design is a huge part of how we pick books, and that’s not a problem.

But, you interject, we shouldn’t judge a book by its trappings! Thus there is no such thing as bad cover design! And yes, hyperbolic representation of a hypothetical reader, you’re wholly correct, in a broad ethical sense. We are all more complicated than our appearances make us out to be, etc., etc. But regardless of whether we should judge a book by its cover, we nearly always do. Take a look at the nearest shelf of books and you’ll see that some spines stand out to you as particularly appealing. Lay out a dozen books on a table, face-up–they come face-up in the boxes, for the most part–and you’ll find that you’re drawn to some covers more than others. Though it’s true that which books you’re drawn to may shift depending on the day of the week, it takes a conscious effort to look past your first impression that this book is more interesting to me than that one.

And that can frequently be a good thing! Covers are basically a quick shorthand to let us know what kind of story we’re getting ourselves into. There are far more books in the world than there is time to read them all, and covers can tell us at a glance if the book we’re holding is one we’re likely going to want to finish. There are genre conventions–you can probably pull a generic romance-novel cover to mind pretty easily–and I’m suddenly wondering about the shared roots of “genre” and “generic”–anyway, there are genre conventions, and there are other rules of thumb that can give you clues to what’s inside the book.

Hate U Give cover 1

The jacket design for The Hate U Give is, to me, both beautiful and brilliant. From a quick genre-check perspective, it has no spaceships, loopy fonts, soft-focus photographs of an attractive couple gazing longingly at each other, or still-life paintings of fruit and bread on a table. The spine and front cover are both eye-catching, with simple, highly readable fonts that are unlikely to be confused with others on the shelf. The graphically bold yet understated figure on the front and the quieter figure on the back are immediately identifiable as individual people in the context of the book, but the choice to use artwork rather than a photograph allows them to stand as American archetypes as well; there’s a kind of tension there that’s explicitly and tacitly discussed throughout the book. Then, too, you have to make the effort to draw Starr’s face in your mind instead of conveniently filling in a stock model. This jacket design represents the very best of the form: a cover that’s a work of art in its own right as well as a window into the story. Before you’ve read the book, it draws you in; after, it takes on deeper personality as you connect the very specifically individual people you’ve just read about to the way we discuss them as archetypes. It complements the book rather than simply describing it.

The artist who created those striking images is Debra Cartwright, and she’s incredible. I definitely encourage you to go look her up.

Man. I could talk about this book all day. But let’s all go look at Debra Cartwright’s work instead, and we’ll come back to covers on Saturday for Part 2.

The Moral of the Story Is,

So among other jobs, I work in a bookstore. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that yet.

A couple of days ago, a woman came up to the counter and asked me something I’ve literally never heard anyone ask for at any bookstore I’ve ever worked at or visited: “Do you have a picture book with a moral to it?”

I think I kind of stared at her for a second, because, like I said, I’ve never once had someone ask for a book with a moral. Lots of people ask for books without any kind of moral or whatever, the way you might ask for pizza without little fishy bits if you, unlike me, can eat cheese; but except for very specifically looking for Aesop’s Fables, no one ever wants one with.

A conversation something like this ensued:

CAP: Um, is there any particular moral you’re looking for?

CUSTOMER: No, just a moral.

CAP: Like do your chores, or be nice to your little brother, or…

CUSTOMER: Those would be good ones.

CAP: Or don’t eat too many grapes on a hot day, or don’t talk to strangers…

CUSTOMER: Sure. Any of those.

CAP: [stares unblinking for a second, discovering herself completely inadequate to the task at hand]

CUSTOMER: [also stares]

CAP: [still staring]

So that was, you know, fantastic customer service on my part.

After a second I recovered and we talked through six or eight picture books that might fit the bill, and eventually she decided on one she liked and everything was fine, but man, I did not realize until then just how big the gulf is between children’s books we use to teach or explore things, and children’s books we use to moralize. I mostly try to keep only the former kind on the shelves…but it turns out that’s not nearly as hard as it sounds. Even the stories I think of as maybe having some kind of lesson to them don’t fit into boxes.

There’s something like Stone Soup by Marcia Brown, which I talked about in my second post, where the moral of the story may or may not be “if you’re going to hoodwink an entire village into providing you with a feast, share so they won’t run you out of town on a rail.” Not quite the thing.

There’s something like Please Baby Please by Spike Lee, Tonya Lewis Lee, and Kadir Nelson, where the moral of the story is approximately “I love you dearly, little one, even when you exasperate me”—which is lovely and true and worth saying, but not so much the hit-you-over-the-head-with-the-message kind of moralizing.

There’s something like Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman, where the moral is either “your skepticism about large animals is warranted” or “frightening people is quite all right if you’re protecting your siblings.” I like both of these ideas a great deal, but I’m not sure I can sell them to customers as morals.

And there’s something like Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke, where you could argue that the moral of the story is “if you’re going on an adventure to rescue your best friend, your best allies are”…but you know what, I’m not actually going to tell you, because that’s the kind of delightful story that you really have to see to believe. The point is, the moral is definitely not that nobody likes a goblin, but it’s not that everybody likes a goblin if only he’s kind and helpful, either.

I’ll readily admit that there are plenty of books out there with much more explicit morals—eat your vegetables and you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar (entirely untrue, by the way) and girls are just as good as boys—but when given the opportunity to banish one from the shelf in a profitable manner, I was not only unable to think of one I really wanted to get rid of; I was unable to think of one at all.

Which leads me to think that when we talk about the moral of the story, we mean two fairly contradictory things, depending on the book. If it’s a book that we like, we might talk about the moral ironically, as with Stone Soup, or we might talk about it in terms of the implicit message found at the book’s heart, as with Please, Baby, Please. If it’s a book we don’t like, the moral of the story can instead be a way of dismissing the whole thing: look, you can reduce the story to a single aphorism, so what was the point of illustrating 32 pages?

The way we talk about the moral of a book, then, isn’t about whether we agree with what it says or not; it’s about whether the story resonates with us enough that we find the message justified. If we’re bored, it’s moralizing. If we’re fascinated, it’s profound. The concept extends to adult books—Lena and I continue to disagree on what side of the moralizing/profound divide Life of Pi falls onto—but I find it especially interesting in children’s books because so many of the classic stories with morals are ones we tell to kids. Little Red Riding Hood, which tells us what happens when you stray from the path or don’t listen to your mother. Hansel and Gretel, which warns us against gluttony. Cinderella, which tells us that if we’re good and kind and sweet even when other people are horrible to us, we’ll deserve saving.

Or maybe I should say, when we tell these classic stories to kids, we make sure to build in morals. I found out recently that one of the original versions of Little Red Riding Hood sees Red save herself.

(And also, apparently, accidentally cannibalize her grandmother? I’m very unclear on whether the internet is playing an elaborate practical joke on me with that one.)

All of which makes me wonder what the customer who asked me for a book with a moral was looking for, exactly. She had a determined sort of set to her face as she asked that made it quite clear that she wanted moralizing specifically, and all of her answers to my various questions suggested the same thing. I don’t know why. I wanted to ask—I nearly always want to ask something—but that seemed like a question too far.

Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.

…Nope, yeah, still seems like it would have been the wrong question.

If you have a chance, read Nobody Likes a Goblin. Preferably aloud. I can’t promise you you’ll be as delighted with it as I am, but I feel quite confident stating that you almost certainly won’t think it has a moral.

What a very weird and disturbingly succinct way of recommending a book.

Soup from a Stone

stone-soup-cover-1

In theory this blog covers all ages and genres of children’s books, but you may find yourself picking up very quickly on a certain…bias.

I dearly love a good trickster tale.

So let’s kick this off with a classic: Stone Soup, the Marcia Brown version with the gorgeous red-and-black-wash illustrations from 1947. It’s a straightforward retelling of the old tale in which three hungry soldiers trick a town into providing them with a meal by pretending they can make soup out of water and a couple of rocks. Ultimately, of course, there’s enough food for everyone, and the town holds a feast, and everything works out quite well, especially because the villagers don’t seem to have noticed that they were tricked by the time the soldiers leave town.

There are a lot of ways you can read Stone Soup. It’s a comedy. It’s a trickster tale with a sweet ending. It’s a story about community, and about pitching in.

It is also quite definitely a story about three armed men walking into a town and deciding to use their words instead of their weapons to get what they want.

That’s not speculation, or my weird interpretation; it’s in the pictures and the text. The book opens with a rear view of the soldiers. Before we see their faces, we see their uniforms and the sabers strapped to their belts. The first page tells us that our protagonists are returning home from a war, that they’re exhausted, that this country is strange to them, and that it’s been two days since they’ve eaten anything. They’re everything that we’re warned about when we read medieval literature and post-apocalyptic survival stories: a group of hungry, desperate, armed men.

They walk into a town where the occupants are clearly holding out on them, lying to their faces that they have no food at all to spare.

And the soldiers, after four pages spent listening to blatant falsehoods about poor harvests and large families starving—really, they’re fair lies to make, but they’re hardly convincing when the children on the page are all trying not to smile as they peek out from behind their parents—after four pages of blatant falsehoods, the soldiers’ reaction is to announce to the town:

“Well then, we’ll have to make stone soup.”

Then they do. Like it’s the most ordinary thing in the world. They’ll have to make stone soup. They’re hungry, and the town is holding out on them, and so the logical conclusion for these three armed men is that they’ll engage in a complicated bit of gentle con artistry to feed not only themselves but the very people who would happily throw them out of town without so much as an apple core.

And, I mean, it’s a book for kids, so naturally we don’t expect a turn to violence. But think about if this were a newspaper article in your local paper. All of the terrifying what-could-happen-next conjectures you’d have as you read the opening paragraphs—they’re all part of the story here too. There’s nothing to say that the same fears you’d have if armed soldiers showed up on your doorstep don’t occur to Louis, Marie, Vincent, and Françoise as they answer the knocks on their farmhouse doors.

I keep bringing up the fact that the soldiers are armed. So do the illustrations. These guys use their sabers to chop vegetables into the pot all the way on the twenty-second page (not to mention the title page in the front). They take off their rucksacks early on, but we repeatedly see that they’re still wearing their sword belts after that. In fact, they don’t remove them until they have the soup they came for and a feast is being set on the table.

We read the book and say, don’t be silly, of course it’ll be fine. It’s a children’s picture book. All will end well. The townspeople will have plenty to go around. The soldiers will be hungry no more as they set off down the road. One day they might even make it home. No one gets bloodied, and no one gets starved. Those options were never even worth considering.

It’s a funny, playful story. It makes us grin and it makes us laugh.

And yet they don’t take off their swords until the feast is on the table.

The classic protagonist of a trickster tale turns to cleverness or treachery because they can’t compete in any other way. Think of Aesop’s fables about a clever fox facing down a lion; the fox can’t match the lion for force or charisma, so if she wants to survive her encounter with the king of beasts, she’d better use her head. Stone Soup offers a twist on the formula. Here, when polite requests and reasoned discussion fail, the soldiers, conspicuously, can use force if they want to. The decision to use trickery is an active choice instead of the default.

That’s the lovely, remarkable, dangerous heart of Stone Soup. We see the swords. We see the risks, the uniforms, the children hiding behind their parents, the lies on all sides, the vivid red wash of the illustrations. We see the swords, and we see three people find another way.

We have a choice of our own when we make stories for kids. We can decide that the world is a hazardous place that must be softened in our tellings, or we can let the hazards show themselves in the plots and in the pictures and tell beautiful, funny, compassionate stories anyway. For all that that sentence makes my preferences clear, it’s honestly not always an easy answer. Things that frighten some kids, or people, anger others; things that are easy enough for one child to accept strike another as outrageous. Things that kids see in their own communities, or live through themselves, often have to be handled differently from those with which they have no experience.

Still, time rolls forward, and the world we live in is itself and nothing else. Weapons and selfishness and deception are real matters to contend with no matter how we try to soften the blow. No town is perfect, and generosity is a harder habit to make than it is to break. Even our protagonists are liars.

But oh, the soup is good, rocks and all.

And the story’s even better.